The following short essay was originally published in the The Presbyterian, Feb. 3, 1916, pp. 10-11. The electronic edition of this article was scanned and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink. It is in the public domain and may be freely copied and distributed.
Faith & Life
by Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921)
A recent writer opens his book with the words: “The present generation is impatient of theological distinctions.” He lets the cat out of the bag when he begins the next paragraph with the words: “There is a good deal of common sense in this reaction against the theological hair-splitting of former times.” He has, perhaps not unnaturally, mistaken his own opinion for the general judgment of the day. The truth is that the world, even in this generation, is made up of a good many people; and a good many varying points of view may be found represented among them. Some are very impatient of theological distinctions, and some are very patient of them: the most are patient to a fault with those they themselves wish to make, and quite impatient of those made by others. The fact is, of course, that everybody makes and must make theological distinctions. Men differ only as they make sound or unsound distinctions, and through these distinctions embrace and live by truth or error.
It is easy to say: “We refuse to believe that a man’s opinions on the minute details of history or metaphysics are sufficient either to admit or to exclude him from the Kingdom of grace and glory.” But when we have said that, we have already expressed a portentous opinion. We have also made a tremendous theological distinction; we have made it most unsoundly; and, as a consequence, we have cast ourselves into the arms of the grossest error, which must mar all our life. The truth is that a man’s opinions on matters of historical fact or of metaphysical truth-call them opinions on minute details or not, as you choose-are absolutely determinative of his whole life. It is a matter of metaphysical opinion whether there is a God or not; or whether there is such a thing as right or such a thing as wrong. We cannot adopt even so simple a maxim as David Crockett’s famous “Be sure you are right and then go ahead,” without having committed ourselves to many very deeply cutting metaphysical opinions, and many of these are capable of being represented as opinions on very minute details. It is a matter of metaphysical opinion whether we worship a fragment of bone or the God of heaven and earth; what separates the fetish-worshipper from the Christian here is a little matter of metaphysical opinion. It is a matter of historical opinion whether such a person as Jesus Christ ever existed, and surely whether any given man ever existed or not is a very small historical detail. And if we are of the opinion that he existed, it is still a matter of historical opinion whether he was the Son of God who came into the world on a mission of mercy to lost men, and died for our sins and rose again for our justification; or was merely a man who suggested to us as his opinion, which it was his opinion it would be well that we also should adopt, that God is a good fellow, and it is all right with the world. We cannot get along without metaphysical delimitations and historical judgments. We cannot go one step without them. And what we call Christianity is bound up with a very definite set of both.
He who adopts this definite set of metaphysical and historical opinions is so far on his way to being a Christian. He who rejects them, or treats them as indifferent, is not even on his way to being a Christian. This is not to say that Christianity is just a body of metaphysical and historical opinions. But it is to say that Christianity is, among other things, a body of metaphysical and historical opinions. It is absurd to say that a man can be a Christian who is of the opinion that there is no God; or that no such person as Jesus ever lived: or who does not believe very many very definite things about the really existing God and the actually living Jesus. Some of these things may be represented as very “minute details.” Gibbon, for example, made himself merry, or made himself miserable, as the case may have been, over the spectacle of Christianity split to its foundations in violent dispute over a mere diphthong-whether Christ should be said to be homo-ousios or only homoiousios with God: whether, that is, he should be conceived as all that God is, or only in some greater or less degree, more or less like God. The whole substance of Christianity was involved, however, in this controversy; the issue was nothing less than whether the world should be Christian or heathen. To represent it as a dispute over a “minor detail,” a mere diphthong, were as sensible as to say that as “gold” and “god” differ in but a single letter, it cannot be of importance whether we serve God or mammon;; and there surely can be no reason (despite what Jesus says) why we should not serve both.
No less a man than John Wesley is appealed to, however, to support this minimizing of the value of truth. And certainly John Wesley did say-he surely was speaking unadvisedly with his lips-something which lends itself too readily to this bad use. “I am sick of opinions,” he writes; “I am weary to bear them; my soul loathes the frothy food. Give me solid substantial religion; give me a humble gentle lover of God and man, a man full of mercy and good fruits, a man laying himself out in the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labor of love. Let my soul be with those Christians wheresoever they be and whatsoever opinions they are of.” John Wesley’s righteous soul had evidently been vexed by men who had nothing but “opinions” to show for their Christianity. But did he ever see such a man as he here paints for us: “a humble gentle lover of God and man, a man full of mercy and good fruits, a man laying himself out in the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labor of love,” who was without the opinion that there is a God to love? No man can have faith, or hope, or love, who is not consciously in the presence of an object on which his faith and hope and love can rest. He must be of the opinion that the object exists, and that it is such as to justify or even to command his faith, hope, or love. It sounds very well to rail at “opinions” in contrast with “solid substantial religion.” Did “solid substantial religion” ever exist apart from the “opinions” which lie at its basis? A man who is of the opinion that there is no God will not manifest “solid substantial religion” in his life. A man who is of the opinion that Christ, if he ever existed-which he may doubt or deny-was a mere man among men, a peasant of Galilee of the first century of the era absurdly called Christian, who still sleeps his unbroken sleep beneath the Syrian sky, will not entrust his soul’s welfare to his keeping. “Faith” in Jesus-in his blood (Rom. iii. 37) and his righteousness (2 Pet. i. 1) -cannot possibly get itself born except on the basis of quite a body of very definite and very definitely held “opinions.” No man can live a Christian life who is not first of “the Christian persuasion.”
That is the reason why Christianity is propagated by preaching. There may be other ways in which other religions are spread. The propagation of Christianity has been very definitely committed to “the foolishness of preaching”-not to foolish preaching, however, which is something very different. It is fundamentally “faith”; and faith implies something to be believed and therefore comes of hearing; while hearing implies something presented to the apprehension of the intelligence- the “Word of God.” Whatever we may say of a so-called Christianity which is nothing but “opinions,” there is no Christianity which does not begin with opinions, which is not formed by opinions, and which is not the outworking of these opinions in life. Only we would better call them “convictions.” Convictions are the root on which the tree of vital Christianity grows. No convictions, no Christianity. Scanty convictions, hunger-bitten Christianity. Profound convictions, solid and substantial religion. Let no man fancy it can be otherwise. Ignorance is not the mother of religion, but of irreligion. The knowledge of God is eternal life, and to know God means that we know him aright.